Talking about cancer at work

Talking about cancer at work

It isn’t easy to tell people that you have cancer. Of course, it isn’t always necessary either. But some people need to know. The people you work with, for instance, need to know. It’s hard to imagine a more challenging audience than colleagues and bosses and the consequences, real and imagined, can be daunting.

Let me start by making the case that people at work need to know. A friend of mine thinks it’s inappropriate to tell people at work about cancer because the information is private and work is public. For me, the line between private and public is not so clearly drawn.

I’m not sure if his reasons for secrecy have more to do with his own need for privacy or more to do with decorum. I have respect the need for privacy, but workers have rights and should never have to hide their diagnosis. According to 1 Up On Cancer, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) entitles eligible employees to paid, job-protected leave and the Americans with Disabilities Act entitles them to accommodations.  (The site I’ve linked to above, by the way, has a fantastic post about talking about cancer at work.)

Either way, I think it’s counter productive to keep cancer under wraps at work because the disease and the treatments can hit you hard. It’s better for work, and for you, to develop a strategy for how to cope. For me, it was important to develop a context within which people could interpret my behavior.

As a college professor, I struggled mightily with whether to tell my students. I missed the second week of the semester because I was in the hospital, and I was in a pretty bad place emotionally after diagnosis. On top of this, a student in one of my classes worked in the ER and processed my admission to the hospital. Students clearly knew something was up, and I felt that ignoring the situation was creating unnecessary drama.

So, I told them briefly about the diagnosis and about the treatments I’d be undergoing. I told them I had no idea whether or not I’d miss any more classes. I let the information sink in a bit. Even though I teach adults, or maybe because I teach adults, this news fazed them. I think they were caught between concern for their teacher and concern for how badly their semester was going to be screwed up.

The most important part of telling them, however, was the follow up. I made a segue way directly from my diagnosis to course matters, directing them first to my plan for keeping them informed about cancellations or online meetings in lieu of face-to-face meetings should it be needed and then moving into the immediate concerns about the missed week.

People will usually follow your lead. If you’re thinking about problem solving and practical matters, they will generally think through this with you. And, you give them permission to relate to the news personally.

No one knows how they will cope with treatments. I’ve got friends in my support group who’ve been through chemo and describe it as a “cake walk” and have a full head of hair. Others can’t get out of bed during chemo. It was helpful for me to let people know that I was facing some unknowns and to “plan for the worst” while “expecting the best,” to quote the familiar.

My best advice to people with cancer is to practice your “elevator speech.” Work on a one or two minute description of your diagnosis and short-term prognosis. I’m not a particularly private person and I knew people would want to know how “serious” my cancer was, so my description included the Stage. “I was just diagnosed with Stage One Bladder Cancer.”

A common response was, “I’m so sorry, but it sounds like it’s very treatable.” At the time of diagnosis I lived in a world where the Defcon 1 sirens were blaring in my head, so it was hard for me to be optimistic and cheery. However, I knew to be grateful for this realistic and sensitive response, so I put on my game face. “Yes, I think you’re right. I’ll have six weeks of treatment, but my prognosis is very good.”

As hard as it was to tell people and to give an optimistic response I discovered that doing so was beneficial to me in myriad ways. It gave me practice for talking about cancer and for inhabiting my diagnosis. It’s so hard to wrap your mind around cancer and giving my elevator speech helped me come to terms with it. Being optimistic also helped me relate to co-workers. I opened up a space for conversation. Finally, putting my game face on helped me to deal with treatments, with anxiety and fear. I created a place for myself where the world was more normal and more predictable.

When I remember to be grateful, my students and co-workers are at the top of the list. I can’t imagine having survived last Fall without them. They were compassionate and loving. They always treated me like a professional, but they cut me slack when I needed it. One colleague just hugged me when I burst into tears in her office, something I didn’t do much, thank god.

My students still expected me to return their graded papers on time, but they were also the kindest people I have ever had the privilege to teach. One class sent me flowers, which was a first in my 20-year career. I count myself among the privileged and lucky.

I struggle to imagine what other people deal with at work, especially those whose cancers and treatments more debilitating than mine or whose co-workers and bosses are not supportive.

Do you have a story about cancer and work to share? I’d love to hear your stories.


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